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PISA – more than just league tables?

In announcing the Government’s response to the Gonski Review, Prime Minister Gillard statedthat the aim of the new National Plan for School Improvement ‘is to ensure that by 2025 Australia is ranked as a top 5 country in the world for the performance of our students in Reading, Science, Mathematics’.

Much of the discussion about the Australian school system has focussed on the relative (and absolute) decline of Australia in the results from the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) over the period 2000 to 2009 despite an increase in real expenditure on school education of 44 per cent over the period. In considering how the school system can be improved, commentators have often looked to the current ‘top 5’ in the PISA rankings—Finlandand the four East Asian jurisdictions included in the 2009 survey (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea and Singapore).

However, closer analysis of the PISA data suggests that using the PISA assessment league tables may not be the best measure of the quality of school systems.
Under the PISAprogram, every three years since 2000 a sample of 15-year-old students around the world have been assessed on their reading, mathematics and science performance. For PISA 2009, some 470 000 students participated, representing about 26 million 15-year-olds in 65 countries. In addition to assessing performance, the students and school principals were asked a range of questions about the school and home environments, as well as students’ attitudes to various aspects of schooling. Testing has recently been undertaken for the 2012 Australian PISA sample.

In considering Australia’s relative decline in the ranking lists, it is worth noting that in 2000 only 32 countries took part in the study, while 65 countries participated in 2009. Part of the reason Australia appears further down the ranking lists is the inclusion of countries which have not previously been included in the results. For example, Shanghai and Singapore participated in PISA for the first time in 2009.
While Australia’s absolute scores have also declined, the results for Finland have experienced a similar reduction across all three areas. In fact, almost all the non-Asian countries that were ranked ahead of Australia in the initial 2000 results have seen a decline in their performance across each of the three subject areas assessed, largely driven by the poorer performance of high-achieving students. This suggests causes outside the direct influence of the Australian education system. Possible explanations include a decline in reading for pleasureamong teenagers or an inability to focus on extended texts due to an increasing exposure to reading on the Internet.

In addition, while PISA attempts to assess the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems, it does not include any measure of the impact of formalised learning outside schools. For many students in the top ranked East Asian school systems this forms a considerable part of their learning experience, in some cases exceeding their exposure to the school system. 

For example, a 2011 article in Time Magazine reported that Korean authorities had introduced a curfew to prevent students studying in private tutoring academies past 10 pm. A typical academic schedule for many students in senior high school starts at 8 am and continues sometimes until 1 am. In 2010, 74 per cent of students had some form of private after-school education, at an average cost of USD2600 per student per year. A recent Gratton Institute report noted that, ‘Korea spends much less per student than other education systems, yet achieves far better student success’. However, this analysis does not include the private tutoring costs, which would increase the per capita expenditure for secondary students by around 30 per cent.

Even if the Australian education system (and its students) were prepared to accept such an approach in order to achieve high results on assessment tests, there remains the question about how valid these tests are as an overall gauge of the success of an education system. In the 2003 PISA study students were asked how useful they thought their schooling was for later life. Eighty-four per cent of Australian students agreed with the statement that, ‘School has taught me things which could be useful in a job’, compared with only 66 per cent of students from Korea and Hong Kong. On the other hand, only 6 per cent of Australian students thought school had been a waste of time, as against 10 per cent of Korean students and 13 per cent of those from Hong Kong.[1]

PISA also includes measures of the equity of the school system. One measure is the spread of scores from the 5th to the 95th percentile, indicating the extent to which the education system supports those at the lower end of academic ability. Although Australia’s performance on this measure is poorer than the OECD average, it is similar to that of Singapore on both reading and scientific literacy, and better than all four East Asian systems in relation to mathematical literacy.

Another measure is the relationship between student background and educational achievement. PISA reports on the socio-economic gradient of school systems to assess their relative equity. On this measure Australia is rated as ‘Average Equity’ for reading, significantly lower than Hong Kong and Finland, but similar to Korea, Shanghai and Singapore.

There is no doubt that PISA provides a very rich source of information about students’ experience of education in countries around the world, as well as the influence of home and school factors. However, it may be misleading to only use the PISA results in reading, mathematics and science as a summary of the success or otherwise of the Australian education system.

[1] Programme for International Student Assessment, Learning for Tomorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003’, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2004, p. 126